Poetry belongs to youth, and Wordsworth, living eighty years, died as a poet about 1807, when, aged thirty-seven, he composed The White Doe of Rylstone. By that time Walter Scott had published The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805); Wordsworth envied its flowing style, and used the meter for his own “lay”—a narrative ballad about the religious wars of north England in the twelfth year of Elizabeth I. Almost an entire family—father and eight sons—was wiped out in one campaign. Emily, the surviving sister, spends the rest of her life in mourning; a white doe comes daily to comfort her, and it accompanies her in her Sabbath visits to the tomb of the youngest brother in Bolton churchyard. When Emily dies the doe continues, alone, those weekly trips from Rylstone to Bolton, and lies quietly beside the grave till the Sabbath service in the church is over, then quietly returns, through woods and streams, to its Rylstone haunts. It is a pretty legend, gracefully and melodiously told.
This was the last triumph of Wordsworth’s art. Aside from some sonnets, which he emitted at the slightest provocation, he did no more for poetry. Physically fifty, he looked every inch a sage, tall and stately, wrapped in warm garments against the incalculable cold, hair receding and carelessly tangled, head bent, eyes grave in contemplation, as of one who, having seen Shelley and Byron pass from infancy through ecstasy to death, now calmly awaited his turn, confident that he would leave a monument more lasting than passionate utopias or sardonic rhymes.
He had the defects of his virtues, for it takes much egotism to preach to mankind. “Milton is his greatest idol,” wrote Hazlitt, “and he sometimes dared to compare himself with him.”116 He accepted praise as unavoidable, and resented criticism as ingratitude. He loved to recite his own poetry, as was slyly noted by Emerson, who visited him in 1833; but he had said, in a preface of 1815, that his poems were meant to be read aloud; and in fact they were music as well as meaning, and a lyric deserves a lyre.
Of course he became conservative as he aged; it was a privilege—perhaps a duty—of years; and if Byron and Shelley did not recognize this it may have been because they died in the dementia praecox of youth. The deterioration of the French Revolution from constitution to dissolution gave Wordsworth some excuse for caution; and the brutality of the Industrial Revolution seemed to justify his feeling that something wholesome and beautiful had passed from England with the replacement of the sturdy yeomanry by the factory “hand.” In 1805 and later, by gift or purchase, he had become the owner of several modest properties; and as a landholder he readily sympathized with the “landed interest” as the cement of economic order and social stability. Hence he opposed the reform movement as a plan of the manufacturers to reduce the cost of corn, and therefore of labor, by repealing those “Corn Laws” that impeded, with high tariff dues, the import of foreign grain.
He, who had been through many years an admirer of Godwin, now rejected Godwin’s free individualism on the ground that individuals can survive only through a communal unity maintained by general respect for tradition, property, and law. After 1815 he supported the government in all its repressive measures, and was branded as an apostate from the cause of liberty. He held his ground, and countered with his final diagnosis of the age: “The world is running mad with its notion that its evils are to be relieved by political changes, political remedies, political nostrums, whereas the great evils—civilization, bondage, misery—lie deep in the heart, and nothing but virtue and religion can remove them.”117
So he appealed to the English people to support the Church of England. He versified some English history in forty-seven “Ecclesiastical Sonnets” (1821), which bore us with their forgotten heroes and sometimes surprise us by their excellence. According to Henry Crabb Robinson, “Wordsworth said he would shed his blood, if necessary, to defend the Established Church. Nor was he disconcerted by a laugh raised against him on account of his having before confessed that he knew not when he had been in a church in his own country.”118
We do not find that he sought comfort in religion when the world of love around him began to crumble. In 1829 Dorothy suffered a severe attack of stone, which permanently weakened her health and spirit. Further attacks damaged her nervous system; after 1835 she lost the use of her legs, and her memory failed except for events in the distant past, and for her brother’s poems, which she could still recite. For the next twenty years she remained in the household as helpless and quietly insane, sitting silent in her chair near the fire, and waiting patiently for death. In 1835 Sara Hutchinson died, and Wordsworth was left with his wife Mary to care for his sister and his children. In 1837 he had still sufficient fortitude to undertake, with the omnipresent Robinson, a six months’ tour of France and Italy. In Paris he met again Annette Vallon and his daughter Caroline, now securely wed.
He died on April 23, 1850, and was buried among his neighbors in Grasmere churchyard. Dorothy lingered five years more, patiently tended by Mary, who was now nearly blind. Mary herself died in 1859, aged eighty-nine, after a long life of duties faithfully performed. There must have been something in Wordsworth greater than his poetry to have won the lasting love of such women. They too, and their like in a million homes, should be remembered as part of the picture of England.